Clockwise from top left: Donoghue, Tsongas, Eldridge, Finegold, Miceli
The upcoming special election to determine a successor to Marty Meehan — who, after 15 years in Congress, is leaving to become chancellor of UMass Lowell — may lack the glitz of the Clinton vs. Obama showdown and the nastiness of the Romney/McCain/Giuliani brawl. But the September 4 Democratic primary does have compelling interest beyond the borders of the Fifth Congressional District, since front-runner Niki Tsongas, the widow of the late senator and one-time presidential aspirant Paul Tsongas, may serve as a litmus test for two developing political uncertainties:
Signs would certainly suggest that, on the national stage, a political family heritage is as valuable as ever (see: George W. Bush), and that women can successfully exploit the connections. Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, whose father was a congressman from Maryland, is one of four daughters of former members of Congress now serving. Four widows of former members are also in Congress. And of course, Hillary Clinton became a US senator, and may become president.
But in Massachusetts, the last two women elected to Congress — Margaret Heckler, who served from 1967 until 1983, and Louise Day Hicks, who served one term beginning in 1971 — made their own names. The same is true of other prominent elected women in the state, including Senate President Therese Murray and Attorney General Martha Coakley.
1) Whether American politics will continue to take on a royalist flavor — with the likes of the Kennedys, Bushes, Cuomos, and Clintons besting those who lack recognizable names. And,
2) Is Tsongas — who, if she were to win, would become just the fourth woman that Massachusetts has ever sent to Washington — part of a rise in female power within the Democratic Party, along with stars such as Hillary Clinton and Nancy Pelosi?
Tsongas’s four opponents for the Democratic nomination complain that her name recognition alone shouldn’t decide the race. And that’s a reasonable, but futile, point to make in a state that for 200 years has swooned over the scions of Adams, Davis, Everett, Lodge, and O’Neill.
On the other hand, this is not your grandfather’s Massachusetts, and none of the state’s leaders — including Governor Deval Patrick, Senate President Therese Murray, and House Speaker Salvatore DiMasi — was born with a silver gavel in his or her hand.
Congressman Barney Frank, a Tsongas supporter (who, coincidentally, defeated the last woman to represent Massachusetts in Congress, Margaret Heckler, when their districts were combined after the 1980 Census cost the state a seat), has said that this race will capture national attention as a referendum on the Iraq War and the 2006-elected Democratic Congress. But so far, the attention has settled on two decidedly different issues: Tsongas’s late husband and her gender.
Tsongas is unabashed about playing the gender card, even though one of her chief rivals is Eileen Donoghue, a former mayor of Lowell. (The other Democrats running are state representatives Jamie Eldridge, Barry Finegold, and Jim Miceli.)